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Thursday, May 26, 2005


an explanation, part i

in response to a welcome comment requesting the basis for my point of view on the world -- herder once wrote, praising hume, "if you want proof of everything, you cannot act at all." nonetheless, i'll try here to address your points -- with nothing like proof, of course. indeed, proof is not possible in these questions. i cannot predict the future. i can only try to ascertain -- with the help of all the philosophy, history and political work i've read -- the trends that are manifest in modern society. this is all that russell could do, all any of us can do. and it will require a very reduced overview of the development of western philosophy.

to start: i am a profoundly conservative person -- much more than you are, if i read your blog correctly. i fully agree with you that idealism is one of the primary questions of the age. however, its answer and its influence on modern society was decided long ago -- long before you and i were born.

idealism was originally the province of men like rousseau, herder, hamann and kant. when hume destroyed the precepts of the encyclopedists with his brilliant observations on causality, he made clear that the fundamental underpinnings of science -- that cause leads to effect -- was wrong, or at least impossible to know. this observation became the dagger in empiricism, a blow from which it never recovered, and spawned german idealism. faith, not experiment, was seen to be the basis of all things.

kant applied hume's observation, in his "critique of pure reason", to assert that causation existed because all objects exist in the mind. this profound refutation of an external world that could be considered real -- and, as substitute, the advocacy of a world which was only idea and intensely introverted and transcendental -- became the basis for all idealism afterward.

hamann applied hume's observation, intended only to reduce causality to probability in the observable, to pauline faith in the unseen, sparking a rebellion from the enlightenment of voltaire and diderot. hamann rejected the classification and systematic outlook on the world embodied by science, observing that the particularity and strangeness of the world was smoothed or ignored by it. hamann, a pietist, particularly detested this as it was applied to men -- no two of god's souls being the same.

hamann explicitly rejected the observable, empirical world of laws and systems which could be the shared basis of a common understanding -- and put primary the individual human soul. this inward impulse -- the dionysiac, as opposed to the apollonian; the metaphysical, as opposed to the physical; the poetic, as opposed to the scientific -- was championed and popularized by goethe (and much ridiculed by french enlightened), becoming the foundation for romanticism.

i reject this! i reject this inward turn, because in my age it has become the dominant feature of human personality, and it is inherently destructive. herder shouted to his critics, "i am not here to think, but to be, to feel, to live!" the force of his words echo in every postmodern assertion of "i want" and "i need". this focus on individual experience as the root of virtue has led western man to the verge of rejecting law -- and law is the basis, the necessary condition of civility.

freedom within law is a powerful force for social improvement. the very point of the english empirical movement -- locke, berkeley, hume -- was to free man from the "interested error" of corrupted traditions, but to do so under the moral law of god and within the institutions and traditions of western civilization.

hamann rejected law as the tool of oppression. better, he thought, to live in wild isolation than to submit an ounce of experience to compromise. hamann was a radical in his day, but this manner of decadent self-indulgence -- which is societal collapse -- has become massively widespread since.

hegel attempted to reconcile, in his way, the primary nature of the individual experience with the systemic philosophical approach of the french cartesian school in dialecticism and deduced an objective "world spirit" which linked all mankind. he became the most prominent german idealist of the age. in the end, he accomplished the fusion of society with the individual in the concept of a national spirit of history, which conflated individual reconciliation with the world with the glory of the nation.

german idealism reached, in the late 19th c, its apotheosis in nietzsche. compromise became simply unacceptable in any form, and was ridiculed wherever he found it. god was dead, he said, and the church simply a coercive weight on man's freedom that must be destroyed; of the nation, he felt the same. all of an individual's activity, thought nietzsche, should be focused on the self -- self-improvement, self-esteem, self-consciousness. the intensity of experience was paramount -- good and bad being oppressive social concepts he rejected, experiencing intense evil was of the same virtue as intense good. nietzsche rejected any concept of a common good. there is only individual will, and those of powerful will become heroes -- inflicting their will on the world, creating experience even in destruction, enhancing life even in death. nietzsche eventually went insane.

what use of all this? the development of german idealism turns out to have had earth-shattering consequences in the realm of human affairs. kantian philosophy swept the intelligensia and leadership of the 18th c into the cult of the self, and romanticism became the primary focus of education, politics and development in germany. britain, the repository of lockean empiricism and tolerance, and france -- which, despite its contribution to individualism in rousseau which was manifested in the french revolution under the jacobins, retained its devotion to the system and order of voltaire and the encyclopedists -- continued to resist romantic selfishness for the institutions they had built to ensure civil order on a large scale. but germany -- being then divided into a thousand small provinces, only loosely affiliated and with no collective national history -- had no such institutional linage to protect it.

with the rise of prussia under bismarck, the german national spirit of hegel suddenly seemed manifested, and the incredibly rapid industrialization of germany -- capitalized by its resounding victory over france in the war of 1870-71 -- reinforced ideas of cultural superiority at a time when darwin's "origin of species" seemed to be making clear the power of struggle and intense experience in strengthening the individual and the nation. many germans (indeed, many englishmen and frenchmen as well) took this newfound economic superiority, national consolidation under prussia and military victory to be evidence of germanic supremacy ascendant -- all based in vitalism that was central to german idealism. it became common to talk about the german destiny as the hero-nation that would lead the world to freedom through the experience of inflicting its will upon the world.

and that's exactly what germany did. the catastrophe of the first world war was conceived, especially on the german side, as the beginning of the darwinian struggle to demonstrate the heroic german destiny -- and was accompanied by an intense national euphoria which lasted for years after. gradually, as the war tore the guts out of every participant, murdering an entire generation in industrial slaughter, the pointlessness became very apparent to many on both sides -- but the utter shock, the raw horror of mechanized slaughter profoundly changed our civilization.

part ii

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OK, I see the wood and bricks laid out, now build me a house.

By the way, I never asked for "proof", "only for concrete examples". I think I can hang with you in this discussion even if it resides in the abstract, or in the theories of DWEs, but consider what one of your referenced philosphers once said:

“I’ve now, alas! Philosophy,
Medicine and Jurisprudence too,
And to my cost Theology,
With ardent labor studied through,
And here I stand, with all my lore
Poor fool, no wiser than before.”

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Anyone home?

By the way, GM, we may not agree, but I wouldn't consider using a term like "anti-intellectual drivel" in a debate. You hurt my feelings, you big bully.

Oh, and the quote is from Goethe.

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and it is intensely anti-intellectual -- as was precisely goethe's intent.

as least goethe isn't drivel.

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Care to define anti-intellectual?

You should not be so threatened by viewpoints that are different from your own. Philosophy is more about what you don't know than what you know, don't you think?

Goethe was just recognizing the limitations of the mind, a sign of humility, not anti-intellectualism.

Anyway, any specifics yet? Again, I think this is reasonable to ask for in a healthy debate like this.

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paul, if you need me to tell you how that is anti-intellectual -- how goethe is anti-intellectual -- i don't see the point in continuing a dialogue. it will be confusing for you, and uninteresting for me. what you need isn't internet chat -- it's a healthy dose of cultural history. (and in that you have much good company, i assure you.) i highly recommend jacques barzun and isaiah berlin.

i'm sincerely happy to have you read what junk i write to whatever extent you wish to, and maybe i'll stop through your neighborhood once in a while.

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Please read what I wrote carefully. I did not ask you to explain why something is anti-intellectual, just what your definition of that term was. If I want to understand Goethe, I'll continue reading him.

You should not presume what might be confusing for your reader, although I have no doubt that you find answering challenges to your "intellectualism" boring.

I'm familiar with Barzun, and many other writers and thinkers that you have referenced. I just don't wear it on my sleeve. I make no assumptions about your intellect, and I suggest that you try to do the same with others.

That said, I consider none of this a waste of time. I'll read through your new post and see if there are any specifics.

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